Growth Spurt Turns Turk Into Pro Prospect

7/20/05 – Daily News Record

By DUSTIN DOPIRAK Daily News-Record Eric Fussell’s teammates were amazed that it didn’t overtly bug him. In each of the first four times the Harrisonburg Turks pitcher started this summer, he gave his squad an effective outing. Only once in that period did he surrender more than five hits. Never did he allow more than one earned run. Never did he get a win. A lack of run support (2.25 per game) and a surplus of defensive mistakes (14 errors that led to seven unearned runs) rendered Fussell’s sparkling earned run average useless. Through four starts, he had a 1.33 ERA, but a 0-2 record. Never did Fussell say a word to his teammates about their failure to turn his strong performances into victories. "He didn’t let it affect him, and that’s a tough thing to do," catcher Matt Sluder said. "I’m sure he was a little frustrated, but he didn’t let it affect his performance, and he never said anything to us about it." Fussell just kept pitching, and finally it’s starting to pay off. His last two starts have been his best of the year, and he’s earned wins both times. On July 9, the Illinois native pitched a complete game, striking out 10 batters in a 5-1 victory over New Market. On Saturday, he struck out eight in seven innings, yielding just two hits and one unearned run in a 10-1 victory over Staunton. His ERA has dipped to 0.99, which leads the NCAA-sanctioned Valley League, and his record is back to even at 2-2. "It was pretty tough," Fussell, who plays for St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., said. "It wore on me a little bit with just a couple errors here and there and how some things didn’t work. But I knew they would pick me up later in the year. I wasn’t too worried. I just threw my game. I knew things would turn around some time, and now they’re playing strong behind me." It shouldn’t have been any surprise to Fussell’s teammates that he reacted that way. If he’s developed anything in his baseball career, it’s patience. "What amazes me is that he’s at a Division II school," Turks manager Bob Wease said. "It amazes me because he’s definitely one of the best pitchers in the Valley League. My gosh, he could be at Florida State or somewhere like that." Just look at Fussell’s vital stats and you’ll share in Wease’s confusion. Everything about the hurler makes him seem like a sure thing for Division I. The right-handed Fussell has prototype size at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds. His fastball regularly hits 90 miles per hour on a radar gun. He’s got a sharp curveball and a baffling change-up, and he throws all of those pitches for strikes. He goes after hitters, and he doesn’t walk anybody. He’s struck out 36 batters in 36 1/3 innings for the Turks (20-16 through Monday) while walking just five. Yet, he pitches at little St. Joseph’s College. So how did any Division I coach, let alone every one, pass on a player with a profile like Fussell’s? Well, actually, they didn’t. Fussell didn’t have any of those qualities that make Division I coaches salivate when he needed them. When he graduated from Marist High School in Chicago in 2001, he was 6-1, 170 pounds and throwing in the low 80s. He apparently was fortunate to even get a D-II offer. Fussell had an in at St. Joseph’s because his brother Dave played first base there until his graduation in 2004. He said he didn’t have any other offers. After he arrived at St. Joseph’s, the genes from his mother’s side of the family finally kicked in. All of his uncles on that side were of average height until their late teens and early 20s before shooting up to between 6-5 and 6-7. The same happened to Fussell. By the time his freshman season started, he was 6-4 and had already jumped to 200 pounds. The velocity on his fastball had also skyrocketed. "I fixed my mechanics and the ball started jumping out of my hand," Fussell said. "My weight jumped up, and I picked up a couple of inches." Fussell didn’t have much of a chance to play around with his new strength, however. In February 2003, which was supposed to be his sophomore year, he blew out a ligament in his elbow in a game in Missouri. He tore the ligament completely off the bone and had to have Tommy John surgery, a procedure first performed on John, then a major-league pitcher, in which tendons are extracted from elsewhere in the body to replace the torn ligament. Fussell had the surgery in April and couldn’t throw at all until the following January. He had the option of rushing the rehabilitation to be back by the end of the 2004 season, but he decided to take another medical redshirt. He didn’t pitch again until this spring. "It was a long two years," Fussell said. "It wasn’t fun at all." When Fussell finally got back on the mound this spring, he enjoyed the fruits of his new size. He went 5-4 with a 2.33 ERA, 57 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 69 2/3 innings at St. Joseph’s. Now that he’s showcasing his skills in the Valley League, he says some of his major-conference teammates have talked to him about transferring to their schools. He’s considering it because he still has two more years of eligibility. On the other hand, with four years worth of credits and a girlfriend at St. Joseph’s, it’s not a decision he wants to rush into. "It’s hard," Fussell said. "They come to the field with all of their free gear and all of that. It’s always been my dream to go to a big school, but I’m not sure. I want to, but now that I’m four years in, I’d have to think long and hard about it." Regardless of whether he makes the jump to a bigger school, Fussell appears to have a chance at a pro career. He doesn’t seem to be anxious about that, either. He has proven, after all, to be a patient guy.